July 19, 2006
Birdwatching Tourism Ready for Take-off in Eritrea
By Ed Harris
ADI KE, Eritrea -- High above a rocky cliff top south of Eritrea's capital, Asmara, an Augur Buzzard glides overhead, its broad white wings outstretched.
Down on the ground, Ken Harte, 70, an American tourist and passionate birdwatcher treads past a narrow valley's candelabra trees and prickly pear, hoping for a rare glimpse of a species not yet recorded in the Horn of Africa country.
"The holy grail would be the Blue-Winged Goose," he said, adjusting the cameras hanging from his body. "There are vague reports of it being found in Eritrea, but as far as I know no reliable records."
Eritrea's diversity of forest, desert, mountain, and beach -- lying between 1,396 miles of Red Sea coastline and mountains thousands of feet high -- provide a rich variety for birdlife, experts say.
"Ethiopia-Eritrea are one of Africa's birding hotspots possessing 861 species, including the 30 species endemic (to the two countries)," Jose Luis Vivero Pol wrote in his 2001 book, "A Guide to Endemic Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea."
Of these 30 species found nowhere else, some 13 have been recorded in Eritrea, attracting birdwatchers keen to expand the lists of rare species they have seen.
"(Thirteen) is a tremendous number for a country this small," said Harte, grinning through his thick beard and boasting that in just two weeks, he has seen 10 of the 13 endemic species.
Harte suspects there were another two species not yet recorded -- the Blue-Winged Goose and the Abyssinian Long-Claw -- though their sightings have not been confirmed.
"Now and again, someone will say yes, they've seen it," he said. "But there are no photographs or expert sightings."
"YET TO BE INVENTED"
Despite its impressive birdlife, Eritrea's poverty, crumbling infrastructure and semi-permanent war footing with neighboring Ethiopia have made it unattractive as an ecotourist destination.
"With little tourist infrastructure, Eritrea is likely to appeal to the more adventurous or pioneering birder," the African Bird Club says on its Web site.
Nearby Kenya boasts several safari parks with luxurious lodges and specialist guides to help birdwatchers scour the bush for new species to tick off their "seen it" lists.
By contrast, Eritrea has no nature reserves on land and lacks even basic tourist services.
Plans are afoot to gazette national parks to protect wildlife, but these are still in their early stages as the authorities grapple with the more immediate concerns of extreme poverty, drought and tensions with Ethiopia.
The Eritrean government, which fought a 30-year war with Ethiopia and finally got its independence in 1993, is keen to find new sources of revenue for its 4.6 million people and lessen dependence on donor aid.
But tourism industry officials say the country is years away from becoming a destination for tourists, let alone ecotourists or specialist birdwatchers.
"The birdwatching tourism industry has yet to be invented in Eritrea," said Solomon Abraha, a travel agent in Asmara.
But he added: "It would benefit people especially in the rural areas."
Abraha said he wanted to set up lodging throughout Eritrea to attract nature lovers, but he said the country first needed to get on the tourist map, something that could take time for Africa's youngest nation.
"The potential is immense, but we need to be able to create awareness," he said.
Until they do, Eritrea may have to content itself with being a birdwatcher's frontier country.